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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth [Paperback]

Margaret Atwood
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 15 2008 CBC Massey Lectures

Now a major motion picture
Official selection: 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Legendary poet, novelist, and essayist Margaret Atwood gives us a surprising look at the topic of debt -- a timely subject during our current period of economic upheaval, caused by the collapse of a system of interlocking debts. Atwood proposes that debt is like air -- something we take for granted until things go wrong.

Payback is not a book about practical debt management or high finance, although it does touch upon these subjects. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies. By investigating how debt has informed our thinking from preliterate times to the present day through the stories we tell each other, through our concepts of balance, revenge, and sin, and in the way we form our social relationships, Atwood shows that the idea of what we owe one another -- in other words, debt -- is built into the human imagination and is one of its most dynamic metaphors.

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Quill & Quire

The evidence is in: Margaret Atwood simply sees more clearly than the rest of us. In her five-part 2008 Massey Lectures, the author applies her familiar cultural X-ray vision to dark material. Debt is usually regarded as bloblike, cheerless, and about as illuminating as a dungeon. But Atwood sees things in it that we don’t. What she offers us in these meditations is nothing less than a secret history of human obligation, economic and otherwise. From ancient tax collectors to the reason why “Hell is like a maxed out credit card,” Atwood exposes the debts we incur and the pledges we make in the arenas of law, business, religion, and the environment. Along the way, she examines the notion of debt as personified by key figures: literary (Dr. Faust, Shylock, the Brothers Grimm); astrological (Libra); and – most formidable of all – actual (the gossips of smalltown Ontario). At the end of the book, Atwood totes up humanity’s moral ledger and asks: What happens when we take more from the world than we give?   There is a wealth of information here (puns may be unavoidable in this review), none of it predictable. As Atwood comments at the outset, Payback is not about economic data, national debt, or money management. Rather, the book is about the realities of being human. We need and want things we often can’t acquire as quickly or as cheaply as we would like. So we tap the other guy. Debt, by its very nature, is about imbalance, which leads to trouble. Atwood illustrates this in five extremely engaging and expertly crafted chapters. “Ancient Balances” deals with society’s long, bloody slog toward the rule of law and a system of fairness. “Debt and Sin” has the Lord getting in on the act: financial debt becomes a metaphor for sin and, later, an actual sin. The related essays “Debt as Plot” and “The Shadow Side” examine literary treatments of debt in the work of such disparate writers as Elmore Leonard and Machiavelli. In the last chapter, “Payback,” Atwood laments the profligacy and shamelessness of the West and reckons that, like those who sell their souls to the devil in old blues songs, we all got to pay up – soon, and big. Debt is a real killer when it is not about money. Take blood feuds, for example (one of Atwood’s more winning attributes is that she is happy to tackle a good blood feud). You hit me, I hit you. Then you hit me again, because you owe me a debt of violence, and so on. These chain reactions  often spiral out of control, until everyone forgets the reasons for the original conflict and eventually acknowledges the futility of it all. Then there are debts of honour: those instances in which our egos will not allow us to accede to an insult, or a lover’s departure, or, say, the prospect of admitting failure to the American people. Atwood points out that while the antidote to blood feuds is not revenge but forgiveness, debts of honour are less tractable. They’re about pride, or patriotism, or lust, and thus are more difficult to pay off. Our biggest, most incalculable obligation, though, is a collective one to our tender planet. How we discharge our debt to nature depends on mankind learning to develop new values that will allow us to “count and weigh and measure different things altogether.” Atwood is perfectly at ease, and perfectly persuasive, in the realms of classical mythology, showbiz, literature high and low, fashion, natural history, and politics. When things threaten to get over-academic she zings in a personal anecdote, or a bit of humour, or both (cf. her brilliant stories about growing up starchy in the 1940s). When our attention starts to wander she’s right there with a gleaming observation (“How fascinating that we say a person ‘redeems himself’ when he’s been guilty of a disgraceful action and then balances it out with a good or noble one. There’s a pawnshop of the soul, it appears.”). The last section – in which Atwood escorts Dickens’ Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future of our soiled globe – is the only one that feels less than accomplished: it’s too manic, and the laughs feel strained. But overall, Payback is wisdom we can take to the bank – even as it poses the questions destined to haunt our jittery, overdrawn era: What is the real cost of living? Can we even afford ourselves anymore? Payback reminds us that, one way or another, the piper must always be paid.


...a fascinating, freewheeling examination of ideas of debt, balance and revenge in history, society and literature - Atwood has again struck upon our most current anxieties. (London Times Online 2008-10-08)

...an extraordinarily vibrant Massey Lecture on debt, how it plays a motor force in much literature, in our own lives and in the machinations of the crowd we elect to govern us. (Maclean's 2008-10-08)

...witty, acutely argued and almost freakishly prescient...as amusing as it is unsettling. (Chicago Tribune 2008-10-08)

...these pieces offer a panoramic look at how the concept of debt acts as a fundamental human bond and - when obligations go unfulfilled, when ledgers are left unbalanced - how it can threaten to tear societies apart. (Georgia Straight 2008-10-08)

A celebrated novelist, poet, and critic, Atwood has combined rigorous analysis, wide-ranging erudition, and a beguilingly playful imagination to produce the most probing and thought-stirring commentary on the financial crisis to date. (John Gray New York Review of Books 2009-04-01)

Atwood's book is a weird but wonderful melange of personal reminiscences, literary walkabout, moral preachment, timely political argument, economic history and theological query, all bound together with wry wit and careful though casual-seeming research.††††††† (Publishers Weekly 2008-09-08)

In Payback, Atwood freely mixes autobiography, literary criticism and anthropology in an examination of debt as a concept deeply rooted in human - and even, in some cases, animal - behaviour...Building an argument that abounds with literary examples...Atwood entertainingly and often wryly advances the familiar thesis that what goes around comes around. (Toronto Star 2008-10-08)

Payback is a delightfully engaging, smart, funny, clever, and terrifying analysis of the role debt plays in our culture, our consciousness, our economy, our ecology and, if Atwood is right, our future. (Washington Post 2008-11-08)

...[Payback is]...a demonstration of Atwood's ability to evoke in memorable detail our vanished cultural past, and to examine both past and present in the form of language. Writing in this mode, she's never off her game. (National Post 2008-10-08)

...[Payback is] elegant and erudite...As one would expect from a novelist of Ms Atwood's calibre, the phrasing is polished and the metaphors striking. (Economist.com 2008-10-08)

...replete with anecdotes and opinions, witticisms and barbs...Payback is more about economic principles, and even the market crisis, than it appears at first glance. As impressive as Atwood's intuitions, or her intellect, or even her humour, is her insistence on tracing responsibilities, and possibilities, back to those human, and thus imaginative, constructions. (Globe and Mail 2008-10-08)

Elegant and erudite...As one would expect from a novelist of Ms. Atwood's calibre, the phrasing is polished and the metaphors striking. (Economist 2008-10-01)

Nothing if not timely...Few writers are able to combine the esoteric with the polemic as [Atwood] does...darkly entertaining. (Winnipeg Free Press 2008-11-08)

Payback is a stimulating, learned and stylish read from an eminent author writing from a heartfelt perspective. (Conrad Black Literary Review of Canada 2008-11-08)

The lectures remind us of why Atwood has been so important to our literature. (Financial Post 2008-10-01)

There has been much written about Atwood's 'prophetic vision' and her ability to be eerily 'prescient'...given Atwood's track record, I'm a believer...Either Atwood was born under a lucky star or she really should be moonlighting from a shady storefront with a sign that says 'Palm Readings: $25.' (Rebecca Eckler 2009-02-09)

"Ms. Atwood is a witty and astute writer of broad sympathy and wide-ranging curiosity, and the prose of the book, at once commonsensical and counterintuitive, bristles with insight and implication." (A.O. Scott New York Times 2012-04-25)

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Whose debt? Whose story? Nov. 13 2008
If Margaret Atwood had written Payback in order to pay off a debt like Charles Dickens is said to have been motivated to write A Christmas Carol, perhaps it would have turned out be a better book.

Perhaps if she'd had another year to write it: originally her Massey lecture was scheduled for 2009 but was brought forward when a conflict emerged with the publication date of her next novel.

As it turned out, Payback: Debt and The Shadow Side Wealth, is somewhat like a character in a novel itself; caught up in circumstance, a hero determined to change the course of events yet doomed to fail by a tragic flaw.

A tragic flaw may or may not be known to the protagonist and in this case, Atwood is acutely aware of it. Still, she plods on as she tragically must, determined to fashion an answer to what was, a year or two ago when she started crafting her arguments, no more than a glimmer of pending economic crisis.

Atwood chooses Dickens' Scrooge for the model of her redemption story, contriving Scrooge Nouveau, a worldly, corporate, media savvy version of Dickens' original, and a capitalist with a keener eye for self-interest than the old miser ever had.

But like Dickens' Scrooge, Atwood's Nouveau version finds redemption to be a relatively free ride; it comes at no real cost to himself; he is more than able to share his enormous wealth. Like Dickens, Atwood advocates personal, internal, even spiritual change. Adopting an attitude of service to others, or the earth as Atwood suggests, serves everyone better, including oneself. It's a slight of hand accomplished by looking at everything one has, even one's body, as borrowed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding read Dec 28 2009
Ms. Atwood's Payback turns from well-researched essay to polemic which spoils an otherwise outstanding contemplation of debt and credit in all its complexities and ramifications. Studies with chimpanzees are used as evidence to support the idea that we are hardwired to balance our interactions with fellow human. We care very deeply about fairness. Our receiving must roughly equal our giving and all these can be of a material, monetary or moral nature. Moral debts may be paid in various forms such as through good deeds, prison or the hereafter. We may even make pacts with the devil whereby our debt is paid with our soul. Our sense of balance is even extended to ourselves so that our good side should balance our bad side. Scrooge from the Dickens' tale, A Christmas Tale is described as an allegory of the shadow side of an individual's existence over-powering the good and leaving him a miserable, unhappy old man. Ms. Atwood then creates her own allegory depicting the life of a modern-day scrooge which begins in an interesting manner and then gets off-track as she extends the comparison from the character of Scrooge to the story. The debt of the modern scrooge extends beyond his immediate family to that of the entire planet, which his actions as corporate entity are helping to destroy. This may be true however does not parallel the original story. Environmentalism becomes a moral imperative that involves conjecture about a world many years in the future. The jump from idea we need to find a balance in our environmental debt has not been given the kind of scientific and literary evidence as was provided for our need to balance our material and moral debts. Nevertheless the book provides some great analysis of the way we calculate our debts and credits through life with support coming from an impressive variety of sources.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Debt and redemption Nov. 13 2008
Given the current worldwide economic situation, it appears rather prescient that the 2008 Massey Lectures are on the subject of debt. In these lectures, Margaret Atwood provides an examination of the concept of debt as a motif in human society, particularly through an examination of the metaphors of debt in western literature. As such, this book only obliquely deals with monetary debts. Rather, the focus is on the more general idea of debt in relation to justice, sin, redemption, balance, and revenge, among other topics.

Atwood begins with the notion of debt and its relationship to fairness, which is ingrained in the psyche of the human race (and other intelligent creatures). In early societies, she describes how notions of debt are aligned with justice, typically represented by a supernatural female figure. It is the emergence of Greece, and the induction of the court system described in Aeschylus' Oresteia, that the idea of a female arbiter of fairness/justice (and thus of debt) is replaced.

Next, Atwood describes the links between debt and sin. In heaven, debts are forgiven; in hell, debts are eternally paid back. The character of Satan is described as a collector of debts, and is often shown with a ledger or balance sheets. With these notions of debt and sin, the creditor is often seen to be as sinful as the debtor, particularly in pre-industrial literature. Moreover, motifs of debt are always twinned with motifs of credit, one symbiotic with the other.

In the lecture on "Debt as plot", Atwood examines the characters of Faust (as exemplified by Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, in particular) and Scrooge (of Dickens's Christmas Carol).
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The greatest book ever!
I read this book several times! This book shows why Atwood is one of the best authors every. The whole book is interesting and draws readers in. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Mohanjit Singh
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite what It could have been
Though Atwood's heart is in it, and her argument sound, this book of "lectures" seems to be lacking something. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Henriette T. Donner
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece, as usual
If, like me, you love all things Margaret Atwood, you'll really enjoy this piece of nonfiction, a collection of the Massey lectures. Margaret Atwood is brilliant, as always.
Published 22 months ago by Amanda
1.0 out of 5 stars Had potential, but a poor finish
The book starts out with 3 very well written, well researched chapters that explore the concept of debt in a historical, religous and literary context. Read more
Published on Nov. 27 2009 by Westjeff
5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Debt in History
When I first picked up Atwood's essays-lectures on the subject of debt, I was skeptical that she, a renown Canadian writer and social thinker, would have anything important to say... Read more
Published on May 14 2009 by Ian Gordon Malcomson
3.0 out of 5 stars out of her domain
Ms. Atwood has been an icon of Canadian literature since Methuselah (aka 'I') was a boy. Her books have been required reading in our schools for almost 5 decades and she is rightly... Read more
Published on May 8 2009 by Leonard W. Hindle
5.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical, Literary, Low-down on Debt
I expected this book to be a fictional story of some sort.
I expected to be taken into a world of characters experiencing and
suffering some kind of karmic chaos for... Read more
Published on May 1 2009 by Amazong
3.0 out of 5 stars Sell your TV
Fine writing, yes but no new insights. Concept of debt is closely tied to a concept of "working for the man" and being in a dependent relationship. Read more
Published on April 18 2009 by SD
2.0 out of 5 stars Mindless fun
Have you ever wondered about the phrase; "The jig is up!" (What is a jig anyway?)? Is the etymology of mortgage unknown to you? Read more
Published on April 13 2009 by RondoReader
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting But No New Insights
I guess it would be a stretch to expect something revolutionary about economics from a literary writer. Read more
Published on April 7 2009 by Coach C
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